Video: Interview with "Boardwalk Empire" Costume Designers

October 19, 2011 BY CAPSULESNEWS

We Are The Market paid a visit to Steiner Studios in Brooklyn to speak with John A. Dunn and Lisa Padovani, costume designers for the Emmy Award-winning HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and chat about menswear and the influence that fashion and film have on each other. Having worked on a number of films and television shows including Mad Men, Shutter Island, The Departed, and Bored to Death, both Dunn and Padovani have years of experience under their belts, particularly when it comes to period pieces.

Now in its second season, Boardwalk Empire picked up awards in seven categories (including art direction and special effects) at this year's Emmy Awards and has been renewed by HBO for a third season. In addition to its captivating script and stunning visuals, the Prohibition-era television series about corrupt politicians and blood-thirsty gangsters has received an overwhelming amount of attention for its costumes (and with the characters sporting slick top hats, killer brogues and slim-fitting suits, it's easy to see why) which are hand-sewn in New York City by Brooklyn-based tailor Martin Greenfield. It's no coincidence that Greenfield's other clients, which include Band of Outsiders and Freeman's Sporting Club, are among the costumer designers' favorite labels. - Adrian Brinkley

Watch the video above to hear the co-designers speak about the show's wardrobe and their thoughts about contemporary menswear, then check out the Q&A below to read the interview in its entirety.

WATM: How did you get your start in costuming and films?

Dunn: I was studying theater and at one point in college decided that I was really interested in costuming because I thought it was really interesting how people chose what to wear and how to present themselves and what they want to reveal and what they don’t want to reveal, and so I changed my perspective from theater to costume designing. I moved to New York and started working in theater for a designer named Santo Loquosto and started doing Woody Allen’s movies in the late ‘70s early ‘80s and from there I started working in film. So I slowly worked my way up in the business.

Padovani: I actually went to college for filmmaking, so I have writing and directing background and when I left school I came to New York to write and direct. I did a lot of different things, I worked in the Art Department, I worked in Locations, I really tried it all. But I wasn’t happy, so I decided that I wanted to get into costume so I took a plummet and went down and became a Production Assistant again an did returns and simple things like that and just worked my way up from there.

WATM: When shooting a period piece like Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire there has to be a serious commitment to accurately portraying the date and times. Do you find this to be a huge challenge or is it actually enjoyable?

Dunn: We love the research, I think you’d say that’s our Bible. We look at research non-stop so that we’re always as completely accurate as best we can be for the show. The internet has changed research dramatically, we can quickly pull up images and research on our period for the next season and it’s just fascinating because we want our characters to look as real as possible. We love the fashion of it all but want them to look like real people and it’s important for us to have the accurate details.

Padovani: It’s both. It’s a huge challenge but it’s very enjoyable at the same time. I prefer doing period pieces because the creativity that you can have in a period piece is completely different from being a slave to shopping and to what the trends are that were created by someone else out in the field of fashion. So for us, we can look at a period and interpret it into what we find aesthetically pleasing for the characters. Doing characterization is much more interesting to us than just going shopping and saying “Oh! This a cute dress let’s try this!”

WATM: I’ve read that you spent a lot of time perusing the libraries at FIT and visiting the Brooklyn Museum and the Met. Where does your process truly begin and how does that inspiration then translate into your work?

Padovani: While we both have our tastes, I think it starts with the actor. We have to look at the actor and the character to see what they look good in. We like to take a lot of period things and put them on actors (and especially actresses) to see what shapes work, what kind of dimensions and cuts work. Then we can go from there.

WATM: The majority of the pieces created for the show are actually tailored by Martin Greenfield, a well-known name in menswear. How is it working with Greenfield?

Dunn: Well, Martin’s just changed our lives, I think. We have to build suits at break-neck speed because we receive the scripts for the show about two weeks prior to when we start filming it and so we have to have a tailor that can really build us a beautiful suit and build it really fast. Martin was very kind to engage with us and start on this project with us, he was not experienced with doing period suits and it’s been a whole journey for the two of us to explore the period tailoring and bring it to life on the show.

WATM: Several of the show’s actors, including Michael Pitt and Michael Kenneth Williams, admit that they don’t move the same when they’re in costume as when they’re out of it. How do you feel the clothing affects the body? Is there a physical aspect to it?

Dunn: There’s no doubt that it’s physical. Suits fit completely different, the armholes fit very high and narrow so it’s difficult for our actors to even lift their arms to their shoulders because of the tightness. Also the tightness across the back and we’re starting to see that again in fashion. The cut of the pants, the height of the pants and the cut of the shoulders is key to making them feel like they’re in this period.

WATM: Although fashion for men during the 1920s was very buttoned up, things were quite different for women as they happened to be experiencing a sexual revolution of sorts. How is this captured in the show?

Padovani: The corset is coming to an end so that’s a big deal for us. Of course for older characters you have to keep that kind of silhouette because not everybody transitions into what’s modern for the time, but for the younger characters, of course. For younger women the clothes were very loose, the bra wasn’t invented so they wore very lightweight flimsy undergarments. If you look at film from the early ‘30s and late ‘20s and look at the women in those films there was a lot of nipple - it was very loose, very sexual and then it tightened and got more conservative later. So it’s an amazing time for women.

WATM: Nucky’s style can be described as “peacocking” in a way; he’s all about his image and outward appearance. Is there ever a point where you actually have to hold yourself back?

Dunn: I would say that’s true, we’re interested in the character and telling the characters story. What we do is we build a closet for each character and each episode we’ll build two or three suits or two or three dresses and slot them in if it’s appropriate for the script that we’ve been received. So there have been pieces that we have not found a home for yet for Nucky to wear in the show because none of the scenes were appropriate.

WATM: Two characters I find most fascinating are Margaret Schroeder and Jimmy Darmody. Both of them started out in one particular class of society at the show’s beginning but have now found themselves in a completely different role. How is this transition being portrayed in the clothing?

Padovani: Well, we had to remake a whole closet for each of them reflecting the kind of money they were suddenly making. Jimmy had to have some nice suits so we started making some beautiful suits, shirts and ties for him and the same for Margaret, she’s this woman living with a very, very important and influential man who makes a lot of money and has a huge, beautiful home, therefore her costume has to reflect that type of money.

WATM: I know that a lot of your work involves period pieces, but do you have any favorite modern labels? If Nucky Thompson were alive today, who (or what) do you think he would be wearing?

Dunn: That’s a tough one. I’m very fond of a lot of the tailors based here in New York and the designers based here, I love Band of Outsiders and I’m really fond of Freeman’s, I think that’s beautiful stuff. Those are probably my favorites right now.

Padovani: I agree with John, I like those labels a lot. I also think that Nucky might be an Armani man because of his age. I think fashion is moving towards this skinny silhouette and I think we’re seeing designers being influenced by the show and making things that look like what our characters really would wear, so it’s a large field of what would be appropriate.

WATM: In years past, it could be said that fashion was directly influenced by film. By the 1990s and early 2000s, however, that was no longer the case. What are your thoughts about the recent resurgence of costuming and the attention it’s been getting thanks to films like Drive and Black Swan and shows like Gossip Girl, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire?

Padovani: I think doing a period television show is interesting. Once we did this pilot and we had this bar that was really high it was like “Okay, that’s the hoop to jump through now.” So I think everybody is trying to rise to that and costuming has gotten a lot of press because of that because it’s important. Producers also understand how important it is and the actors really love it, need it and want it to help with their characters. It’s just sort of an avalanche effect.

WATM: Do you believe film and fashion still feed off each other? If so, how?

Dunn: Oh yes, absolutely. At Martin Greenfield’s we have a number of contemporary designers having their suits, jackets and menswear built and their stuff is on one side of the room and I’ll see our suits on the other side of the room and there’s definitely been a cross-pollination between the two and I’ve been excited that they’ve been looking at our stuff and influenced by it but at the same time we’ll see detailing that they’ve discovered from their research that they are putting into their clothing] and I’ll go “That’s a good idea, maybe we should do that,” because we always do things that are accurate to our period but a lot of times I haven’t seen the actual application of it or had time to do it.

WATM: Any thoughts about the upcoming Great Gatsby film? Have you heard who’ll be costuming it? What direction would you like to see them take?

Dunn: I’ve heard that it’s going to be Baz Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin and she’s actually designed all of his movies. I think they’re going to do more of a contemporary take on the 1920s than we do and I always think that’s a fascinating thing because we’re all about accuracy and real costume period detailing so they’ll be riffing on the 1920s a little bit more (and using the same tailor, Martin Greenfield). But I think it’ll be really exciting - as his films always are.